HARRISON, N.J. — Early in Saturday’s action at Red Bull Arena, Massapequa native Sean Nealis went shoulder-to-shoulder with the visiting team’s top forward, winning the duel and setting a physical tone for the 90 minutes ahead.
That’s not uncommon for Nealis, a starting centerback for the Red Bulls the last few seasons. Doing so against Robert Lewandowski, one of Europe’s all-time greatest goal-scorers and a UEFA Champions League winner, is not quite the norm.
Yet that was the job for Nealis and his teammates in a friendly match against FC Barcelona, the final match of a U.S. tour for the La Liga powerhouse on Saturday evening, which ended in a 2-0 Barca victory.
"A very interesting game against one of the biggest teams in Europe," said Red Bulls coach Gerhard Struber following the defeat. "In the end, we have to realize it's an outstanding team with quality over the whole roster on the highest level, but my boys created a good evening."
The area’s Barcelona supporters were out in force. They created much of the noise, took over several sections of the building typically filled by RBNY’s most raucous fans and saw goals by Ousmane Dembele and Memphis Depay.
While the atmosphere mostly was celebratory, the evening was marred late when several spectators invaded the pitch, running toward Barcelona players on the field, as well as manager and club icon Xavi on the sideline. With stoppage time near its end, the match was abandoned while security corralled and removed the rogue supporters.
During the match, the Red Bulls kept things competitive against a Barcelona starting lineup featuring several starters, including superstar striker Lewandowski, who was acquired this summer with 312 German Bundesliga goals to his name over 12 years with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Behind Nealis and partner Aaron Long, goalkeeper Carlos Coronel played up to the level of their competition, making three point-blank saves in the first half, including two against Lewandowski, eager to score his first goal in a Barcelona shirt.
The breakthrough, however, came thanks to Dembele. The French winger broke the deadlock in the 40th minute, running onto a soft pass in the box by Raphinha and slotting it past Coronel.
Still, the Red Bulls never were out of the match. Dru Yearwood missed by a hair on a shot from distance in the first half, and the Red Bulls played with the energy to stay with Barcelona. Even after wholesale changes to the defense in the second half, the Red Bulls kept Lewandowski scoreless.
The tide turned fully for Barcelona when the Red Bulls went down to 10 men in the 82nd minute after a Daniel Edelman red card. The job was finished in the 87th minute when Depay took advantage of a loose ball at the edge of the box, getting around keeper Ryan Meara for the finish.